The forerunners of today’s business jets were multi-use airplanes known not for their opulence but their versatility. One of the earliest, the Beechcraft Model 18, performed a variety of roles, from military trainer to air ambulance.
“It was just so adaptable, that’s the beauty of the design,” says Dorothy Cochrane, curator of general aviation at the National Air and Space Museum, which has a Beechcraft D-18S on display. “It was an airline feeder, a utility transport, a floatplane, a snowplane. At one point, it was a bomber trainer with a gun turret.”
The Museum’s Model 18 is one of 9,000 copies that Beech Aircraft Corporation has built since 1937. “Anything that lasts for a 32-year production run has to be pretty damn good,” says Cochrane.
After the all-metal monoplane was converted into transportation for business executives in the 1940s, sales of the Model 18 sustained the company for decades. “The Beech 18 found a niche in business aviation and [the company] stuck with it for sheer economic reasons,” says Museum curator Von Hardesty.
The airplane’s production line was closing when, in September 1969, rival Cessna Aircraft Company test-flew a turbine-engine model called the FanJet 500. Cessna soon renamed it after a Thoroughbred horse, the 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation.
By 2009, the company had delivered more than 6,000, making Citations the world’s largest family of business jets. Business aviation suffered from negative media coverage in late 2008 and 2009 when the CEOs of Detroit’s automakers, coming to Washington, D.C., to ask Congress for financial assistance, all flew in on private jets. Sensitive to the criticism, the National Business Aviation Association last October expanded its “No Plane, No Gain” campaign with talking points to help bizjet owners and their customers characterize the jets as necessities rather than luxuries. “In this tough economy, we need to reach as many customers in as little time as possible, as airlines have pared down schedules and ceased service,” the NBAA suggests in a sample letter.
Much as the Model 18 was the mainstay for Beech, Cessna’s Citation X is the only variant to have sold in every year since its certification in 1996, and is Cessna’s biggest and fastest jet. Golf legend Arnold Palmer bought the first one, and sales have held steady at 12 to 26 per year.
The Beech 18 was a speedster in its time; Walter Beech set a record in one in 1940, when he flew from St. Louis to Miami at 234 mph. Speed may be the key to the Citation’s success. With maximum cruise at 604 mph, it is the fastest civilian jet flying.
Roger A. Mola is an Air & Space researcher.